Among the thousands of species of plants and insects calling our great state home, how do you know what’s truly harmful and what’s safe? There’s no need to get a degree in entomology or agriculture to play it safe outside. Here’s a hot list of common plants and unfriendly critters to avoid while exploring.


  • Wild parsnip: This plant frequently lives along Michigan roadsides, in open fields that get a lot of sun, and along linear park trails. When it’s seeding, mowing in these areas will carry it along, which is part of why we’ve seen an increase in Michigan. The dangerous part about wild parsnip is it contains a type of chemical that causes phytophotodermatitis – a skin condition that makes skin hypersensitive to UV light and can cause severe blistering, discoloration, and sometimes blindness. To identify the plant, you will notice the mustard-yellow flowers that span about six inches across and the leaves look like celery leaves. It can grow up to five feet tall.
    • Giant hogweed: This plant is very similar to the wild parsnip and has been cause for recent concern in the news. This plant also causes phytophotodermatitis but is much larger in size and is not common in Michigan.
  • Poison hemlock: This plant is common in west Michigan, specifically near Muskegon, and is extremely toxic through touch and ingestion. Its toxin will seep into the skin and cause severe health problems, such as dizziness, respiratory issues, paralysis, and in rare instances, death. People should always wear gloves and a face mask when handling, even if the plant is dead because the toxin still exists. It’s identified by purple spots along the stem and its unpleasant odor.
  • Poison ivy: This plant is very well-known and common in Michigan. A good rule of thumb is “leaves of three, leave it be,” but there are many plants that also have three leaves. Your best approach to avoiding poison ivy is wearing long pants when hiking through the woods and carrying an ivy wash with you to clean the ivy oil off if you do come in contact with it. Dish soap will even work!
    • Poison sumac: This is less common in Michigan than poison ivy, but you’re more likely to brush into it because it grows taller, into a bush or shrub. An ivy wash also works well for treatment.


  • Swimmer’s itch: Free swimming larva will congregate in shallow waters, especially on a windy day, and can cause severe irritation if it gets into the skin. This is more common for children who typically play in shallow water. The Department of Environmental Quality will release advisories noting swimmer’s itch, but always be on the look-out.
  • Ticks: The tick population has grown in Michigan over the years and has become more cause for concern, lately. To prevent tick bites, keep to the designated pathways while hiking and avoid tall grasses. Wearing long pants and shirts can help but be sure to check yourself before heading indoors as to avoid bringing them inside and possibly latching onto a pet. Tick bites are not harmful if properly removed within 24 hours and should be followed up with a visit to the doctor. Save the tick after removal for research!
  • Chiggers: These small red bugs can become quite the irritation when they burrow into your skin. Avoid wet, grassy areas!

Don’t let the fear of encountering these plants or insects stop you from enjoying the great outdoors. We all know Michigan summers are something never to take for granted, so arm yourself with information to keep you and your loved ones safe while exploring.